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China is flexing its muscles: time to worry

It would be crazy if a bunch of five uninhabited rocks precipitated a military conflict between two world powers. That doesn't mean it won't happen

It would be crazy if a bunch of five uninhabited rocks, covering no more than seven square kilometres, precipitated a military conflict between the world’s second and third largest economic powers. Crazy, and most unlikely: but all the same, it is strange how little attention is being paid to the increasingly fraught dispute between China and Japan over what the former calls Diaoyu and the latter Senkaku.

On the other hand, I have just returned from a week in Japan, so perhaps I am out of touch with the priorities in Britain (and maybe mainland Europe, too): what to do about the publication of fuzzy photos of the Duchess of Cambridge without her top on. Meanwhile in Asia... there have been mass demonstrations in 80 cities across China against the decision of the Japanese government to buy the disputed islands from their private owner (a Japanese businessman); various Japanese multinationals, such as Canon and Panasonic have closed down their factories in China, to avoid the risk of being stormed by irate local mobs – one firm has already seen some of its production facilities destroyed; and an aide to the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said that Japan’s Self Defence forces might need to be deployed, as “we cannot rule out the possibility that China will deploy its military ”.

Today might be the peak of the disturbances, which have to be seen in the context of Chinese resentment over historic injustices: 18 September marks the anniversary of the Manchurian incident of 1931, the bomb plot contrived by the Imperial Japanese Army to justify the invasion of Manchuria. This explains why the Japanese School in Beijing has been closed today (and yesterday) but hopes to reopen tomorrow.

In the West there is a wide knowledge of Japan’s actions as an enemy of the US and Britain in the Second World War. Those, in a quasi-legal manner, were dealt with by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, commonly known as the Tokyo war crimes-trial. Yet that tribunal, despite its official title, did not much concern itself with what had gone on in Manchuria as part of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. As America’s leading historian of 20th century Japan, John Dower, wrote in his magisterial Embracing Defeat: “The Americans who controlled the prosecution chose to grant blanket secret immunity to one group of Japanese whose atrocious crimes were beyond question, namely the officers and scientific researchers in Unit 731 in Manchuria who had conducted lethal experiments on thousands of prisoners (they were exempted from prosecution in exchange for sharing the results of the research with the Americans).”

But there is very little that modern governments of Japan can do about that now, other than to apologise; and that they have done repeatedly over the years; perhaps the most striking was the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s statement in front of dozens of heads of state in 2005, that “Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering for the people of many countries, particularly those of Asian nations.” China’s President Hu Jintao, who was present, did not react to the apology.

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in fact dates back to the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5; it was in 1895 that Japan took control of the rocky outcrops, which lie close to Taiwan rather than mainland China (let alone Japan). While I was in Tokyo I had the benefit of discussing this issue with Professor Shinichi Kitaoka, the former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, who as an eminent academic historian was the Japanese chairman of the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee which investigated the Nanking Massacre.

Kitaoka pointed out what is not in dispute: that the islands had long been administered by Japan and that they had never physically been occupied by China. He added that it was only in 1968 when it was discovered that the seabed around the islands could contain oil reserves that China raised the issue of sovereignty. He observed that Taiwan also lays claim to the islands; and, with a smile, added that the People’s Republic of China makes its own claim precisely through the belief that Taiwan is itself wholly and indivisibly part of its rightful territory.

Kitaoka, a veteran of these disputes, told me that one of the problems he had found when discussing such matters with negotiators from the People’s Republic was that over the years they would come up with different “official” views over what constitutes China’s legitimate territory: “Sometimes they would tell us ‘The Korean peninsula is ours’. On other occasions they would even show us maps on which all Asia apart from Japan and India is designated as China.”

Like many less well-informed souls, the former Japanese UN Ambassador is deeply worried by what he sees as the deliberate stoking of aggressive nationalism by the Chinese leadership. His own belief is that this stems from the demise of the Soviet Union: that with the collapse of Marxism as a unifying ideology – and witnessing what that meant for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the Chinese leadership realised that only nationalism could fill the gap. Of course, the Chinese politburo can also lay claim to the support of the public on the basis that since the reforms led by Deng Xiao Ping it has presided over an extraordinary economic transformation, and the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty.

It was only in 1968 when it was discovered that the seabed around the islands could contain oil reserves that China raised the issue of sovereignty.

That tearaway economic growth is now slowing, however; and at the same time it is becoming increasingly clear how the families of party big-wigs have become fantastically enriched through their control over the levers of economic power, especially the sale of land ostensibly owned by the people collectively. It is easy for commentators to imagine how the Chinese leadership – in a tricky period of transition – might see a row with Japan over some rocks in the East China Sea as a way of deflecting public anger from the corruption of party officials when the economy is itself entering choppy waters.

Somehow, I doubt it. If the overriding interest of the Chinese leadership is economic stability, it cannot make sense to endanger trade and investment with its most prosperous neighbour. Indeed, the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department has issued instructions to the state media to desist from reporting on Japan’s alleged misdeeds.

The problem is that for some years now the Chinese government has indulged a spirit of revanchism; understandable as that might have been in the context of China’s growing economic and military might, such forces once released are almost impossible to control. Trouble, in other words.